Mailbag: Margaret Court's Controversial Honor and More Australian Open News

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Housekeeping...

• Our most recent podcast featured Robbie Koenig, with a spirited discourse from quarantine in Melbourne.

• Next up: the incomparable Renee Richards.

• Pete Bodo asks whether Craig Tiley overplayed his hand.

“Whatever Happened to Jack Scott?” asks Scott Fowler…

• The “encounters with a pro” submissions have been terrific. Since the entries are still coming in, we’re going to extend the contest. A Dunlop racket goes to the winner. These have been wonderful and, frankly, more entertaining than quarantine dispatches from fashionable people exiled in hotel rooms (Moira!). So let’s start here….

Here are a few to beat:

• Grant Walker: I teach at a school in Geneva where Stan Wawrinka's child attends. I came around a corner and he was there, waiting to pick her up after school. I said hello and mentioned I was a big fan (especially since I have a single-handed backhand). He was very congenial, so jokingly, I asked if he would join our Sunday morning men's doubles. He took my comment seriously though, and nervously asked where we play. I quickly let him off the hook by saying I was only kidding. Nice guy. Very approachable.

• Eugene W.: My story is a simple one. I happened to be in Paris when Rafael Nadal won his first French Open title. I remember that there was a ton of excitement about him and lots of Who is this guy? chatter. I was leaving from CDG airport a couple of days after Nadal won the tournament and who do I see at the airport, no other than Rafael Nadal himself, standing next to me in line, with his ever-present Uncle Tony. I said a brief, “Congratulations, you played very well” in my best Spanish and he was very gracious and humble. What stood out most about the encounter was the fact that (1) he was carrying his own tennis racket bag, in a bag that looked just like mine, and (2) he was in the economy class line, just like I was. No one else seemed to recognize him and no one was trying to get his autograph. He was just a guy getting on a flight...oh, how things have changed.

• Richard Wolf of New York: About 15 years ago, I went on a vacation to Key Biscayne the week when the Miami Open was going on. The hotel was filled with many pros and the hotel’s courts were used by many to practice. I had a court reserved to play with my 14-year-old daughter. Martina Hingis had just returned to the tour after an absence and was suddenly doing very well and was in the top 10. She came to the court we had reserved with her mother to practice. Even though it was our court, we gave it to them and as Martina went on the court, I said to her mother that Martina was doing very well. The mother’s response: “You Americans think everything is always great!” Evidently being ranked anything other than No. 1 was not good enough. And there was certainly no thank you for giving Martina our court.

• Dave Lu, Seattle: As a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y., I was always an avid tennis fan. When I was a high school freshman in the mid-’90s, I was part of an urban arts outreach program and visited museums and galleries throughout the city with artists and educators. On one occasion, us group of kids were invited to collaborate on an art project that involved taking pages from a book with MLK Jr’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and painting abstract mountaintops onto them. The pages were later hung up en masse as part of an exhibition. The event took place one evening at John McEnroe’s Manhattan apartment. I’m not sure how that was arranged but he must have volunteered his space to the organization. I still remember sitting at his dining table covered with newspaper and painting triangles onto the disassembled book pages when John McEnroe came home and said hello. He asked if we were all having fun and that we could help ourselves to anything in the kitchen. He later retreated to his bedroom and let us commandeer his living and dining rooms for the rest of the evening. I recall thinking, “He looks just like he does on TV!” We were all too shy to say much to him, but I distinctly remember how welcoming and nice he was to a bunch of awkward 14-year-olds in his apartment. I just hope we didn’t leave too much paint on his dining table or floors!

Onward…

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Hi Jon, I appreciated your more nuanced take on the quarantine. I feel like a lot of this has been inflamed by sensationalist media coverage here in Australia. I think you'll find in a week's time when they are out of quarantine and move into a world that is almost COVID free, the players will then understand the why of what they went through and opinions will change markedly for the better.

On Novak's ongoing tribulations, I actually admire him for sticking to his guns—if you're going to represent the other players, part of that is doing it even if you don't agree with their decision—I would imagine Novak taking a lot of public hits on behalf of his comrades would not have gone unnoticed by his fellow players.
Ben, Lismore, Australia

• I’ll start with Novak and agree. Inartful as he can sometimes be, he should get credit for—consistently, forcefully, to his own detriment—looking out for his less fortunate colleagues. A point that gets lost: these aren’t teammates. These are other independent contractors in an individual sport, i.e. the competition. This is McDonald’s lobbying to make Arby’s and Taco John’s more competitive in the marketplace.

I agree with Ben. It’s important to note that Melbourne ain’t New York or Paris or any of the other cities that hosted tennis in the past six months. This is a place that has, effectively—and through great sacrifice of the citizenry—beaten COVID. So the idea of letting in 1,200 people from around world is fraught. On the other hand, fomented by social media—and the irresistible storyline of rich athletes confined to hotel rooms—a few regrettable stories and posts have surfaced. But the vast majority of the players is/are behaving.

I listened to your podcast with Steve Flink. I finished reading his book, Pete Sampras, Greatness Revisited, and enjoyed it. Have you read the book and if so, what was your impression? I was glad to see that someone as knowledgeable as Steve Flink reminds everyone how truly great Sampras was. Each era builds on the previous one. The players in the current era were obviously influenced by Sampras. Sampras was the best athlete in his era and was the best mover. All the top players are great movers now. That didn't used to be the case.

Unfortunately, I have seen some tennis fans denigrate Sampras, saying he only had a serve and a forehand. You don't win 14 majors and be year-end No. 1 six years running with only two strokes.

Like Flink, I hope to see some more diversity of playing style in the future. I also liked the fact that the playing surfaces were more different. I think if they weren't so similar, we might well see more difference in playing styles. What are your thoughts on all this?

P.S. I forgot to mention there is a very humorous story in one of the later chapters where Sampras’ youngest son plays tennis and told his father who was trying to give him tips on serving, that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Andy Krouse, Reading, Pa.

• First, be sure to go to the end of the column for a GOAT take by Harvard tennis player David Arkow. I want to dwell on the first point you made: “Each era builds on the previous one.” We talk a lot about inspiration. Athlete X showed Athlete Y that it could be done. She set the blueprint. He set the bar.

But predecessors also showed their vulnerabilities to their successors. Nadal knew exactly what it took to beat Federer and could fashion his takedown accordingly. LeBron saw the mistakes Jordan made—retiring too early; making emotional decisions—and could avoid those pitfalls.

Sampras is fourth on the all-time list. His aversion to publicity—or, more charitably, his aversion to self-promotion—won’t help his cause. He, unlike each of the Big Three, never won the career Slam. His success was relatively compressed. (Aside: If Djokovic wins in Melbourne, it will have come 13 (!) years since his first major.) I don’t know how, realistically, he vaults ahead of the Big Three.

But he hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for a lot, not least his role in setting the stage for his successors. It’s no coincidence that he was surpassed. Apart from giving them a numerical goal, he set the standard. And offered a glimpse of what not to do—skip clay, retire early, hurt your back doing a slam-dunk overhead—as well.

Another example that tennis can be a sport for all, plus someone to root for in the upcoming Australian Open: Francesca Jones.

P.S. Seems like a great profile for Tennis Channel
Ken Wells, Newport, R.I.

• This is a great story. To Tennis Channel’s everlasting credit, way back in 2016, at Wimbledon, I was assigned to interview Francesca, then a junior. She was fantastic, so self-possessed and endearingly blunt. At one point I asked her what she considered the strength of her game. I am paraphrasing but she essentially said, “My mental strength. When you’re born without a full complement fingers and toes, you think I get worked over bad line calls or let cords?”

Unfortunately, her triumph was overshadowed by another story from the Wimbledon junior that year.

But watch for her in Melbourne. And, while we’re at it, another Tennis Channel feature, Rebecca Marino.

Dear Mr. W! Happy 2021!

As I read somewhere on social media, did Roger Federer know something the other players didn't when he decided not to go to Melbourne? Let us start a conspiracy!
M. Ng laughing in Vancouver, Canada

• Conspiracy theories are so 2020. (Semi)serious point: how wise do Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki look now, retiring, as they did, before COVID?

Did I hear right? Margaret Court is getting some kind of honor from Australia? How can this be, in 2021?
Sarah, New York

• 1. This is really nasty stuff. This wasn’t a regrettable slip of the tongue followed by apology and vow to be better. This is consistent. This is vile. This is an organizing principle.

2. This is not about free speech. Margaret Court is free to speak her mind. No one wants to impede that. But free speech does not come inoculated from consequences.

3. This is not about cancel culture. Pretty basic idea here: don’t slather the names of bigots on buildings.

4. Tennis Australia has tried to carve out a middle ground that simply doesn’t exist. Perhaps this year—with so many other crises to address—it will do the right thing and roll out no red carpet.

5. This is not going to age well. You make analogies here at your peril, but it’s not hard to find cases of tolerated bigotry in the past and then, with a little time, we say, “Wait….what? How was this allowed to happen?”

My husband, who was in the news department at the Champaign News-Gazette for 38 years, will shoot on sight anyone who says, "close proximity.” And I'll defend him.
Mary Ann Royse

• Amnesty. Granted. But what does he do when someone modifies unique? Asking for a friend.

Shots, Miscellany

• David Arkow, Harvard College Class of 2024, take us out!

Hello Mr. Wertheim, When reading your tennis Mailbags, I always find the recurring theme of people asking about the GOAT debate and your responses very interesting. It is probably the most prominent and sometimes divisive question among tennis fans. There likely is no one definitive answer for who is the greatest of all time, but there are cases for many different players throughout tennis history. Ultimately, I think it is a great way for tennis fans to engage and debate this likely never-ending question.

I am a freshman on the Harvard men’s tennis team. I am also a member of the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective. Tennis analytics is a new and emerging field, but it’s very exciting. I recently published an article making an analytical case for why Novak Djokovic is the GOAT. I wanted to present an argument solely based on metrics to have some kind of objective criteria. The article is more about making a case for why he should be considered the GOAT since I believe Novak has been overlooked due to personality factors and having slightly less Slams than Federer and Nadal (which will probably change soon). Hopefully you find it interesting even though he might not be your GOAT.